It’s a question I overheard at the 144th Scottish Highland Gathering & Games‘ WhiskyLive event, at one of the tasting tables. It’s easy to forget to answer these basic questions as you learn more about a subject. This is a good question and should be answered!
Many people are familiar with the term whisk(e)y and know it to be a kind of alcoholic beverage, but not everyone knows the difference between all the types. Whisk(e)y is unique among such beverages because of all the adjectives that go with the noun. Vodka, Gin, Tequila, etc., are just what they sound like. Whisky is more than a product…it’s a category! Whisk(e)y variants depend on where they are made, and the ingredients from which they are made. The closest analogy I can think of is wine, which also has regional aspects (i.e., the terroir) as well as a variety of ingredients (types of grapes: cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, pinot noir, malbec, etc.).
- Is Scotch, whisky?
Yes. Scotch is a kind of whisky. It’s any type of whisky that is made in Scotland that complies with the legal definitions necessary to be called “Scotch.”
- What is whisky?
Essentially, it’s distilled beer that is aged in oak barrels. The length of time it must be aged and the type of wood vary. Usually it’s also mandated to be at least 40% alcohol by volume, which is 80 proof. The type of grain used to make the “beer” determines the type of whisky; the location where it is produced is also important: Scotch is only made in Scotland, but malt whiskies can be made anywhere.
- What other kinds of whisky are there?
Bourbon, Rye, Japanese, Canadian, Irish…and many others.
- What’s the difference?
Besides where they are made, there are different regional or local styles that derive primarily from whatever type of grain was historically grown in that area. Whisky can be theoretically made from one or more cereal grains: Barley, Corn, Rye, Wheat, etc. There are also legal and regulatory definitions that govern whether a product can use one of those names.
- I’ve seen terms like “Single Malt” and “Blended” Scotch; what do they mean?
This is getting a little more involved. Any time you see the term “malt” it refers to “malted barley,” or whisky made from malted barley. When used with the word “malt,” “single” means that the whisky was produced by a single distillery. “Blended” means that the whisky was a mixture of product from multiple distilleries, usually including Scotch grain whisky, i.e., any whisky made in Scotland that is not made exclusively from fermented malted barley. This brochure is a nice introduction to Scotch. I recommend that you look up unfamiliar terms in Google or Wikipedia.
Confusingly the term “single” can have multiple meanings. For instance, a single-grain Rye whiskey would be not only made at a single distillery but could also be 100% Rye. There are also terms like “single-cask” that mean just what they say: The bottles were produced from a single cask, not a mixture of spirit from casks of the same age.
There you have it. The answers to the “top-5” basic (and important) questions about whisk(e)y. And that reminds me of #6:
- Why do some people spell whisky without an ‘e’?
Actually, most people spell it that way. For obscure reasons, several countries add an ‘e.’ Irish, Canadian and American whiskeys are generally spelled with an ‘e’ and whisky produced elsewhere generally omits the ‘e.’ This blog, when referring to Scotch, always omits the ‘e,’ but includes the ‘e’ when appropriate. When speaking generically, I use parentheses to indicate that the ‘e’ might, or might not, be present: viz. “whisk(e)y.” Some other writers also use this convention. I like it, and I don’t think there is an “official” way to write a generic term for whisk(e)y.
Extra credit: The plural of whisky is “whiskies,” whereas the plural of whiskey is “whiskeys.” Isn’t English a fun language? What’s great is that you can even violate the rules to get attention. I’d wager that very few people noticed this clever “mistake.” But now you’re in the club and can enjoy such wordplay in the future.